Follow TV Tropes


Useful Notes / Ancient Greek Language

Go To

"Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat."

"Graecum est, non potest legi"
— "It is Greek; it cannot be read." (Latin phrase used by medieval scribes when they encountered Greek text)

The language of Homer, Sappho, Sophocles, and Plato, not to mention every other poet, writer and playwright of Ancient Greece, as well as the language of the New Testament of The Bible. Since Western Civilization is based on the culture of Ancient Greece and on Christianity, Ancient Greek literature is very important indeed. The term "Ancient Greek" is a catch-all for the periods and dialects of Greek spoken up till around the fifth century AD. Of course Greek did not die out, but evolved into Medieval Greek and then the Modern Greek spoken today. However, Ancient Greek is considered a "dead" language, since it no longer has any native speakers.


Unlike English, Ancient Greek is an inflecting language, meaning that grammatical information is primarily indicated through the forms of nouns and verbs, rather than through word order. In fact, Greek word order is extremely free; the subject, object and verb of a sentence may be placed in any order, and the order chosen conveys nuance and emphasis rather than grammatical information. In this respect Greek is very similar to Latin, and in fact the two languages have a lot in common. This isn't because they are that closely related to each other, but more because their grammars both conserve many features of Proto-Indo-European, their mutual ancestor.

Ancient Greek has been and still is one of the most widely studied languages in the West, because of the importance of its literature, history, and religious writings, as well as for the information it gives us about the Proto-Indo-European language, the common ancestor of most languages spoken in Europe. It was traditionally studied after Latin, which is more familiar in terms of vocabulary and less menacing in grammatical complexity. Nowadays few students learn Greek at all, especially in high school.


    open/close all folders 

    Alphabet and Pronunciation 

The most immediately recognizable feature of Greek is the alphabet, which was derived from that of the Phoenicians. It is in fact very similar to the Latin alphabet. The Greek alphabet has 24 letters:

Ααaalphaa in "father"
Ββbbetab in "bat"
Γγggammanormally g in "gut"; sometimes n in "finger" (before k g ch m)
Δδddeltad in "dot"
Εεeepsilonshort version of ay in "bay"
Ζζzzetazd in "Mazda"
Ηηêetalong version of e in "bet"
Θθththetaaspirated th in "lighthouse"; later th as in "thin"
Ιιiiotai in "machine"
Κκkkappaunaspirated k in "skin"
Λλllambdal in "light"
Μμmmum in "map"
Ννnnun in "not"
Ξξxxix in "box"
Οοoomicrono in "go"
Ππppiunaspirated p in "spin"
Ρρrrhotrilled r as in Spanish "perro"
Σσ/ςssigmas as in "sit"
Ττttauunaspirated t as in "stop"
Υυy/uupsilonü as in German "über"
Φφphphiaspirated ph as in "trap-house"; later f as in "fix"
Χχchchiaspirated kh as in "choke-hold"; later ch as in Scottish "loch"
Ψψpspsips as in "capsize"
Ωωôomegao as in "dog"
(For lowercase sigma, ς is used at the end of a word, σ elsewhere.)

You can also throw in ϝ "digamma," which represents a w sound that was lost in most dialects.

The ancients only used the uppercase letters; the lowercase forms are later developments. In addition, there were many different variant forms of the alphabet. The form presented here was originally the Ionic Alphabet. It was adopted in Athens around 402 BC, and went on to become the standard throughout Greece. If you're wondering why English uses H and X for totally different sounds than the standard Greek alphabet, it's because the Latin alphabet doesn't derive from the Ionic alphabet, but from an Etruscan adaptation of a dialectal alphabet used in Italy, where H and X had the values they do in the Latin alphabet.

Pronunciation is a bit of a tricky issue, since "Ancient Greek" covers a millennium of linguistic change, all before tape recorders, but we actually have a pretty good idea of how certain dialects of Ancient Greek were pronounced. The pronunciation given here is intended to be that of 5th century Attic. However, be warned that few teachers or students of Greek attempt to follow the reconstructed pronunciation, but use pronunciations following various traditions, often influenced by later Greek. In particular, few attempt to use the aspirate pronunciations of th ph ch. Fortunately for us, early Greek writing was obsessively phonetic; the concept of standard spelling that differed from pronunciation had not fully developed yet, so everyone just wrote how they spoke. Therefore, there are no silent letters, or multiple distinct pronunciations of the same letter (mostly).

The vowels are of two kinds, short and long. Long and short vowels differ only in the length of the sound. The vowels a i y can be short or long; the distinction isn't indicated in writing. On the other hand, e o are always short, and ê ô are always long. All diphthongs (sequences of vowels pronounced together) are long.

Speaking of diphthongs, there are quite a few. So ai is pronunced like "eye" and oi as in "coin". When upsilon is the second element of a diphthong, it's romanized as u and pronounced like the vowel of "moon". Thus au is pronounced like the vowel of "house." There are two apparent diphthongs that are actually just long vowels: ei, which is a long version of e, and ou, which represents that "moon" vowel.

The three diphthongs êi, ôi, and long ai, when lowercase, are typically written in an unusual way; the i is written small underneath the first vowel, as ῃ ῳ ᾳ. This is called "iota subscript."

Ancient Greek was originally written with uppercase letters only, with no other adornments. Modern texts use a complicated system of diacritics invented in the Middle Ages to indicate breathing and accents. "Breathing" is simply whether or not a vowel is preceded by an h sound, which was not indicated in the Ionic Alphabet, even though it was a phonological distinction of Ancient Greek.

The accents get into messy territory, because we truly cannot know how Ancient Greek actually sounded. The prevailing theory is that Greeks marked the accented syllable not with force and length, as in English, but with an increase in pitch. (Stressed syllables in English are higher pitched, but it's not the primary distinction.) Sometimes this gets presented as "Ancient Greek was a tonal language like Chinese", or, worse, "Ancient Greek was sung, not spoken." Neither of these is quite true; the Greek pitch accent is structurally more similar to English than to Chinese, in that accent is a feature of a word or group of words, not of individual syllables. And poetry and music all ignore the pitch accent almost completely, preferring to base their organization on syllable length, so take from that what you will.

Ancient Greek nouns have distinctions in gender, case, and number. Most nouns have a single fixed gender, masculine, feminine, or neuter, determined first of all by actual sex (mêtêr "mother" is feminine, patêr "father" is masculine), second of all by grammatical form (all nouns ending in are feminine, all in -on are neuter), and third of all for no apparent reason at all, with all the accompanying confusion that's to be expected from any language with gender.

Oh by the way, when we say "nouns" here, it really includes what we would consider nouns and adjectives, and pronouns as well, as well as the definite article (word meaning "the"). The only real difference between nouns and adjectives in Greek is that while nouns have a fixed gender, adjectives change form to agree with the gender of the noun they modify, as do the article and some pronouns.

Number refers to the distinction between singular and plural, which should be pretty familiar to speakers of European languages. Greek also had a dual number, for pairs of things. So instead of saying hoi cheires (plural) for "the hands," you could go for tô cheire (dual). The dual is totally optional, and fairly uncommon. Homer uses it a good amount, but on the whole Greek neither needed nor really wanted the dual, and it disappeared from use.

Noun case is an extremely important part of Greek grammar. The form of the noun changes to indicate what sort of role the noun performs grammatically, along with number and gender as previously mentioned. There four important cases, nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative, plus the vocative, which is only used for addressing an individual and is identical to the nominative much of the time. To give an example of the different cases of a noun:

Case Greek Romanization Meaning Example
Nominativeὁ λύκος ho lykos Subject The wolf blew the piggy's house down.
Accusativeτὸν λύκον ton lykon Object The piggy sued the wolf.
Genitive τοῦ λύκου tou lykou "Of"/possession They were stimied by the wolf's lawyer.
Dative τῷ λύκῳ tôi lykôi Recipient/benefactorHe won the case for the wolf.
Vocative ὦ λύκε ô lyke Person addressed Good job, wolf!
In addition to these, there are the corresponding plural (and dual) forms, which aren't obviously related to the singular forms (nominative plural hoi lykoi, accusative plural tous lykous, etc.). And this is just the second declension masculine, one of many, many ways of declining a noun in Greek. There are properly three declensions, but the third has many variations, some of which essentially have to be memorized as separate declensions (we're looking at you, polis). Adjectives have between twice and three times as many forms, as they must also indicate gender.

The payoff of the case system is that to a large extent word order doesn't matter. If a noun is marked as nominative, it doesn't matter where it is in the sentence, because it must be the subject. A speaker of Greek knows this intuitively, and would never be tempted to assign it any other role in the sentence. It's even possible to separate an adjective from the word it modifies, because they are connected by case, gender, and number agreement. For speakers of English, this concept is a little difficult, although presumably a Greek would be just as confused by our system.

If you thought Greek nouns were overly complex, you may be advised to turn back now: the verbs are indescribably worse. To make things more confusing, many people insist on describing the verb system as if it were Latin, muddling things further by reflecting on how there is "no imperfect subjunctive" and referring to verbs without active forms as "deponents". The truth is, the two languages have very different verb systems. So if you have studied Latin, perhaps suppress some of that knowledge for the next section. If you aren't familiar with Latin, no need to worry about that: onwards!

Greek verbs are inflected, or "conjugated", primarily by adding suffixes to the stem of the verb. The inflection indicates five things:

  • The person and number of the subject. note 
  • The voice of the verb: active, passive, or "middle". In English, voice is primarily a way of shuffling around word order. In Greek, they can do that already, thanks to noun cases, so voice very often corresponds to differences in meaning, which is difficult for English speakers to grasp.
  • The time when the action occurred, past, present, or future. This is not so important in Greek, and is subordinate to...
  • The aspect of the verb: whether the action is seen as a continuing state ("present" or "progressive"), a singular action ("aorist"), or a continuing state resulting from a completed action ("perfect").
  • The mood of the verb: indicative, subjunctive, optative, or imperative. Indicative refers simply to what is, and is the only mood that distinguishes time. Imperative verbs are commands. Subjunctive and optative... we'll get to those later.
  • Plus there are non-finite forms: the infinitives and participles, which distinguish aspect and voice but mostly not time and mood.

Person and number is fairly straightforward, as it is determined simply by the subject. This is nice, because it means you can leave out subject pronouns: machomai means "I am fighting," and is a complete sentence all by itself. When it comes to ambiguous cases, Greek is pretty free: you can use a plural verb with a singular noun denoting a group, for example, and if there multiple subjects the verb can agree with just one.

The other dimensions deserve to be addressed individually:


Active and passive voice will be familiar to speakers of English: active "The wolf is chasing me," passive "I am being chased by the wolf." The middle voice indicates that the subject has some personal involvement in the action. So for example, the verb may be reflexive (subject does something to himself), or it may benefit the subject. A rather neat example can be seen in the verb pauô "stop": active epausa means "I stopped (someone else)", passive epauthên "I was stopped (by someone else)", and the middle epausamên "I stopped (myself)". Sometimes the distinction is more subtle: active thyô means "I sacrifice", when doing so is part of a priest's normal duties; but if a leader has a sacrifice made, for example before an expedition, the verb is middle thyomai, because he is having the sacrifice performed for his own interest.

To provide yet another example of meaning depending on voice, the verb timôreô means "avenge" in the active, "take vengeance on" in the middle, and "be punished" in the passive. All clearly related meanings, but changing the voice does a lot more than switch the role of the subject and object.

Many verbs exist only in one voice or then other: hêkô "have come" is only active, machomai "fight" is only middle. Why? Well, sometimes you can attach a distinctively active or middle meaning to a verb; verbs of thinking or feeling are often middle, for example. Oftentimes, it's because that's just the way it is.

The passive and middle are identical in form in the present and perfect; the ambiguous passive/middle forms are sometimes called "mediopassive." Whether these forms are still distinctly passive or middle is kind of a tree-falls-in-the-forest sort of question, which we won't try to answer here.

Time and Aspect ("Tense")

It's common to say that Ancient Greek has seven "tenses": present, imperfect, aorist, perfect, pluperfect, future, future perfect. This is strictly true, but not the best way of describing it. A better description is to say Greek has three aspects:
  • Progressive (commonly called "present"): denotes ongoing, continuing action, similar to English "I am doing this." or "I do this (habitually)."
  • Aorist: denotes a singular action, viewed as an event rather than a process.
  • Perfect: denotes the ongoing result of an event.

Each of these aspects can be present indicative, past indicative, subjunctive, optative, or imperative, and the aspect distinction extends to infinitives and participles as well. We'll get to the non-indicative forms later; the indicative possibilities form our "tenses". For whatever reason there is no present aorist, only past. The "present" is present progressive, the "imperfect" past progressive, the "perfect" present perfect, and the "pluperfect" past perfect. Nice and tidy, right?

It might be a good idea to take a moment to talk about the perfect. Although the canonical translation of the perfect is "I have [verbed]", the Greek perfect is far less common than its English analog. In most places where English would use a "have" perfect, Greek prefers the aorist. The perfect is specifically for verbs referring to the ongoing result of an action. For example, the verb ktômai means "to acquire"; the common perfect form kektêmai means "I have acquired", or more simply, "I possess." Similarly, the normal word for "remember" is memnêmai, which could literally be translated as "I have been reminded." The perfect is much less common than the other forms, especially in the active. The active pluperfect and passive future perfect are rare, and the active future perfect... doesn't exist, outside of a couple verbs.

Greek doesn't have any particular way of indicating a verb that is "double-past", as in English "I had entered the room when she called me." It simply uses an aorist, and you figure out the meaning from context. In particular, while the Latin pluperfect is used for this purpose, the Greek pluperfect does not serve as an "anterior past."

You may be wondering how the future forms fit into this, and the answer is, not that well. The future forms are indeed primarily distinguished by time, and not aspect; the future is normally ambiguous between progressive and aorist. Overall the Greek verb system is organized sort of as if the future were a fourth aspect, with the exception of the future perfect, which is quite rare.


The indicative mood is simple enough: it refers to something that is happening, happened, or will happen. Only indicative verbs distinguish time. The imperative is used for commands: ithi "go!" Keep in mind that the progressive/aorist distinction applies to the imperative as well: compare progressive manthane "be learning!" with aorist mathe "learn!" There are also third person imperatives, which seem a little odd to English speakers; they can clunkily be translated with an expression like "let him [verb]".

The subjunctive and optative are difficult to describe, because they don't have distinctive meanings by themselves. They are very often used in conditionals, ie, "if" sentences. The subjunctive is generally used of events that are in the future but somehow uncertain: ean apophugêi... "if he escapes...", machômetha; "are we to fight?" The optative when used by itself is a wish or prayer, but is more often used for possibilities or potentialities, as well as kind of a past-tense version of the subjunctive. And of course the aspect distinction carries over to the subjunctive and the optative as well.

Note to Latinists: you may have heard that Greek "doesn't have an imperfect or pluperfect subjunctive." This is technically true, but misleading: It's not as though Greek is missing these forms; there's simply no room for them logically, because the difference between present/imperfect and perfect/pluperfect is one of time, and in Greek only indicative verbs distinguish time. The progressive subjunctive is no more present than it is imperfect.

The uses of the moods, a topic which overlaps with the usage of present and past forms, is actually quite complex, but to get into to it here would get us in more of a mess than we're already in.

Non-finite forms

There are infinitives for every combination of aspect and voice, as well as future infinitives. These correspond to English infinitives like "to say", "to be stolen", with uses that are broadly similar. Greek also has a neat trick where it makes a verb into a noun by using the article with an infinitive: to timasthai, literally "the to-be-honored", means "(the act of) being honored."

There are also participles for every voice/aspect combination, plus the future forms. These are akin to English's "the running man", "the city being attacked". They are basically like adjectives, and conjugate for case, number and gender like adjectives do. Greek loves loves loves participles, and will use massive numbers of them in place of finite verbs. Often they have to be translated as phrases: "machomenos" might mean "fighting," "while fighting", "because he is fighting," "even though he is fighting," "if he is fighting"...


So by now do you want to learn how all these myriad forms are actually, well, formed? The short answer is that it's complicated. The long answer is that it's really complicated, and also fantastically irregular and inconsistent. A verb can have six distinct stems (present, future, aorist middle/passive, perfect active, perfect middle/passive, aorist passive), which are known as principle parts, and from which every other form can be derived. Many verbs are completely regular, meaning you can figure out all the forms just by knowing the present stem. Many other verbs are irregular, in that some or all of the principle parts have to be memorized separately. And others have other irregularities that need to be memorized apart from the principle parts. In general, even if you know completely how a verb is conjugated in, say, the present tense, you can't say anything with confidence about its conjugation in, say, the aorist.

That said, there is a basic system underlying the chaos. There is a small group of basic person/number/voice endings, one set for present and subjunctive, one for past and optative, one for imperatives. In "thematic" forms (present, imperfect, and future, sometimes aorist) either e or o is inserted between the stem and the ending; this is called the "thematic" vowel. From the present stem, the future and aorist stems are normally made by adding -s-, the perfect active -k-, and the aorist passive -the-. The perfect middle does not insert anything in between the stem and the personal ending. Most past indicative forms add a prefix e-, called the "augment", and most perfect forms repeat the first consonant of the stem ("reduplication"), so that lyô has the perfect form lelyka. The subjunctive forms lengthen the thematic vowel, and the optative forms insert -i- before the ending.

Here's a sampling of the forms of graphô "to write":

Greek Romanization Translation Form
γράφωgraphô I am writing 1st person singular present active indicative
γράφειςgrapheis You are writing 2nd person singular present active indicative
γράφειgraphei He/she/it is writing 3rd person singular present active indicative
γράφομενgraphomen We are writing 1st person plural present active indicative
γράφετεgraphete You guys are writing2nd person plural present active indicative
γράφουσι(ν)graphousi(n) They are writing 3rd person plural present active indicative
ἔγραφε(ν)egraphe(n) He was writing 3rd person singular imperfect active indicative
ἔγραψε(ν)egrapse(n) He wrote 3rd person singular aorist active indicative
γέγραφε(ν)gegraphe(n) He has written 3rd person singular perfect active indicative
γράψειgrapsei He will write 3rd person singular future active indicative
γράφεταιgraphetai It is being written 3rd person singular present middle/passive indicative
ἐγράφετοegrapheto It was being written 3rd person singular imperfect middle/passive indicative
ἐγράφθηegraphthê It was written 3rd person singular aorist passive indicative
γέγραπταιgegraptai It has been written 3rd person singular perfect middle/passive indicative
ἐγέγραπτοegegrapto It had been written 3rd person singular pluperfect middle/passive indicative
γραφθήσεταιgraphthêsetai It will be written 3rd person singular future passive indicative
(ἐὰν) γράφῃ(ean) graphêi (If) he write 3rd person singular present active subjunctive
γράφοι (ἄν)graphoi (an) He could write 3rd person singular present active optative
γράφεgraphe Write! 2nd person singular present active imperative
γραφθήτωgraphthêtô Let it be written! 3rd person singular aorist passive imperative
γράφεινgraphein To write present active infinitive
γράφωνgraphôn Writing nominative singular masculine present active participle
γεγραμμένονgegrammenon Written nominative singular neuter perfect middle/passive participle

For the forms that end in (n), the n is included only at the end of a sentence or before a word beginning in a vowel. The subjunctive and optative forms have other words added, as they are untranslateable in isolation.

You can get an overview of (most) of the regular forms here, and a giant list of all the conjugation patterns here. The first link contains around 240 conjugated forms, and that's omitting the future perfect and dual forms. Plus each of the participles has a full set of adjective forms for case, number and gender, pushing the number up even more. As a side note, the first link demonstrates the verb lyô, beloved among Greek textbooks for both being regular and having a very short stem, much like Latin's amo.

    History and Dialects 
One very important thing to understand about Ancient Greek is that it was never a monolithic language, but a group of related dialects, which were associated both with specific regions, and, importantly, with different kinds of literature. Most of those dialects are only known through local inscriptions. Only a handful have survived in literature.

All the actual word-forms used in this article are taken from Attic Greek, Attica being the region of Greece containing Athens. Most Classical Greek prose, including Plato, is in Attic, as is all surviving drama. For this reason Attic is the dialects most learners of Greek start out with. As a result, people tend to think of it as "normal" Greek, but it isn't really; it's an offshoot of Ionic. The most distinctive linguistic feature of Attic is that it likes to combine consecutive vowels into a single long vowel, a process known as "contraction." So while most speakers of Ionic dialects call a song an aoidos, Attic speaks call it an ôdos.

Ionic Greek, in turn, is a widespread dialect very similar to Attic. In fact, the two are oftened referred to collectively as "Attic-Ionic." Herodotus wrote The Histories in Ionic. Ionic is also the primary basis of Homeric Greek, the dialect used by, well, Homer. No one ever spoke Homeric Greek in conversation; it's an artificial mixture of dialects used exclusively in poetry. A side effect of this is that there are often many alternate ways of forming the same word. In Attic, if you want to say "to be" you say einai; if you're Homer, you can take your pick from einai, emmenai, emenai, emmen, or emen. This variation is very helpful when you're trying to write metered poetry. Homeric Greek is also rather archaic, which shows itself in all kinds of odd ways. Most noticeably, he doesn't use the article much, and when he does he often uses it in ways not consistent with later usage.

Homer has some quirks that are actually leftovers from the earlier stages of Greek, some of which are recorded in Linear B (a writing system used for a very old dialect), and some of which we've reconstructed logically. Older Greek had a few a more different consonants; for example, Linear B tablets have the words gwasileus and wanax, which later became basileus and anax.

Other dialects include Doric, spoken in the region of Sparta, and Aeolic, spoken in the island of Lesbos, among other places. Sappho wrote in Aeolic—"Lesbian Aeolic," to be specific. (Feel free to giggle.) Part of the reason so little of her poetry is preserved is because later Greeks were baffled by her dialect. There's no surviving literature as such in Doric, but choral sections of plays were traditionally supposed to be written in Doric. In practice, since the people writing these plays aren't Doric themselves, that just means Attic with a thin layering of "Doric."

In later times, after Greece was united under Alexander the Great, a new dialect developed called the Koine. Koine is based on Attic, with its more provincial features stripped away, and with a somewhat simplified grammar. (The optative mood is rare in Koine, for example.) Koine literally means "common," because the Koine was used all across Greece; as a result it displaced most of the local dialects. As a result of Alexander's conquests, the Koine was spread through the ancient world. This period of history is called the "Hellenistic Period," after the Greek word meaning "to speak Greek as a second language." The New Testament of The Bible is written in Koine, with a lot of Semitic influence. Koine later evolved into Medieval and then Modern Greek.


    Ancient Greek Words for Love 
Since you asked: it's not as remarkable as people make it sound. Greek does indeed have multiple words for love; four, in fact. The most common are philia and erôs. Philia basically means "friendship", and is derived from the word philos "friend". The associated verb phileô is used for all sorts of liking and loving, including possibly the romantic kind; it can also mean "to show affection" or "to kiss". Erôs is associated more with sexual desire, but it's used for many other kinds of love as well. In general, philia and erôs are not strict terms for specific kinds of love, but are used for many purposes in different contexts. Much like the English word "love", for that matter. (As a side note, by these meanings the usage of "X-philia" in English to mean "a sexual fetish for X" is etymologically inaccurate; the old-fashioned forms like "pederasty" are more accurate to the Greek.)

The other two words for love are agapê and storgê. These two aren't especially common in Classical writing; agapê is notable for being the word used in the New Testament for God's love, and generally covers charity and good will. Storgê refers to love between family members.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: